What’s The Score?

Among MMA’s hottest topics is an aspect of the game that gets attention for all the wrong reasons. Seemingly every event has a decision where either side can debate a winner and not come to a consensus on why.

But with any sport that can have an outcome based on objectivity, there are always going to be arguments and calls for change. With so much at stake these days, state commissions cannot afford to turn a blind eye to the furor, lest fans, promoters, and fighters feel they are hopelessly viewing and competing in a flawed system.

With a full slate of events scheduled for 2010 and no foreseeable changes to the system on tap, the spotlight will continue to focus on today’s judges and the decisions they are entrusted to make. No matter how far things have come, this fight isn’t going away.

The Best of What’s Around?

Without regurgitating the rulebook word for word, the 10-point must system can essentially be broken down like this:

• In any given round, 10 points go to the fighter that wins the round based on effective striking, aggressiveness, defense, grappling, and control of the fighting area.

• The fighter that loses the round traditionally gets nine points, but more points can be deducted based on rule infractions or damage.

• There also can be a 10-10 round if it’s simply too close to call, but it’s rare.

While this seems simple enough, it’s the perception of the rules and the interpretation of “effective” that raises the biggest issues. One major complaint is that judges don’t understand the ground game and sometimes can mistake being on top as “effective grappling.”

“The biggest problem is when judges and refs don’t understand effective ground and pound,” says Strikeforce analyst Stephen Quadros. “As soon as the fight hits the ground, they think it’s a death match.”

WEC bantamweight contender Scott Jorgensen cited the August 2009 Jeff Curran/Takeya Mizugaki fight as an example of a case where damage can be done from the bottom and be missed, a bout Curran lost by split decision.

“Curran was throwing up submissions and strikes and everything from the bottom. If a guy is that active and being that proactive about his ground game, that’s an offense,” says Jorgensen.

“When you’re keeping your opponent’s offense from happening, you’re winning that position, and that needs to be taken into account.”

In Nevada, the 10-point must system has been a constant since the summer of 2001. Nevada State Athletic Commission Executive Director Keith Kizer has heard it all when it comes to MMA, boxing, and kickboxing scoring, including suggestions on rule adoptions, variations on the point system, and lots and lots of feedback.

As part of the Association of Boxing Commissions—a group that legislates and enforces rules for both boxing and MMA in North America—Kizer says they have reviewed various systems but haven’t found anything to compel them to drop the 10-point must system.

“There’s not a lot of support to change what’s been going on for the last 10 years or so,” says Kizer, adding that boxing and MMA don’t necessarily have to fall under the same point scoring system. “The other systems didn’t seem to be getting any better, and in fact, they seemed to be worse.”

Eastern Thinking

In looking for potential changes, two Japanese systems have been pointed to as alternatives.

“In Pancrase, fighters were given a certain number of points to start the match. When they were caught in a submission but made it to the ropes to escape or were knocked down to the mat, they lost points. When the time limit was reached, the fighter with the most points remaining was the winner,” explains Total MMA author Jonathan Snowden.

PRIDE had a system where judges were instructed to choose a winner based on the fight as a whole, not by individual rounds. “The major criteria consisted of the fighter’s effort to end the fight by submission or knockout and causing damage to your opponent. It was a system that rewarded aggression and penalized a fighter looking to do nothing more than control position,” Snowden says.

Jorgensen has never fought under either system but is open to the idea.

“I think there are a lot less controversial decisions over there. The fights might be closer and require a judge to be more cognitive of what’s going on, but if they’re trained and know what’s going on in MMA, it shouldn’t be an issue to know throughout a 15 or 20 minute fight who’s creating all the action.”

Judged By Your Peers

While various systems can be debated endlessly, the crosshairs remain on those brave souls who put numbers to paper and can change the course of fighters’ careers just by giving their opinion. For the most part, judges are relatively obscure and don’t tend to comment too often, aside from Cecil Peoples, who staunchly defended his scores for one of 2009’s most controversial decisions: Lyoto Machida vs. Mauricio Rua at UFC 104.

In Nevada, there are 15 to 18 judges that cover boxing and MMA, with just a handful doing both. Depending on the event, either Kizer or the Commission (with Kizer’s recommendations) will assign approximately seven judges to a card.

During a fight, judges are front and center to the cage, but in the occasion that they are blocked by a referee or can’t get a good vantage point of what’s happening on the other side of the cage, they are at the mercy of their own eyes or looking up at a screen in the arena.

“When we watch an event, we get three to five camera angles, replays, and commentary on those replays to shade our view of who won. Judges don’t have that. Why?” Quadros says. “All these people online are geniuses, as they have the luxury of great production value to see every minute move that the judges don’t see live.” Jorgensen agreed, adding that when he’s cornered fighters, he sometimes misses action due to the referee or angle.

“You might not see strikes landing from the bottom or a guy on top landing short elbows. Even up against the cage, you might not see the complete control of a guy if he’s landing stuff in the clinch,” Jorgensen says. “Some of the action and attacks are in closed space. Judges may not see it, and you may not get credit.” Kizer said that judges haven’t asked for monitors and is unaware of any jurisdiction that has them.

Quadros—who has judged in both the UFC and King Of The Cage—feels that the amount of events is problematic in today’s judging and that quality is being stretched too thin. However, when it comes to judging, there is one simple truth.

“Judges are good up until they render a decision fans don’t agree with,” Quadros says. “It should be obvious: ‘Who won the fight? This guy or that guy?’ That’s the bottom line.”

SIDEBAR

SO, YOU THINK YOU CAN JUDGE?

If you’ve ever thought that you can judge a fight better than those who get paid for it, step right up. You too can become an MMA judge if you’re willing to work for it. When Nevada State Athletic Commission Executive Director Keith Kizer gets applications from inexperienced wannabe MMA judges, he tells them to spend a few years judging in one of the state’s amateur MMA organizations before they are considered. Even then, Kizer is careful not to put judges in high-pressure situations until they are fully ready and have proven themselves at various events. “There’s nothing like the pressure of being in that seat, judging the fight, and knowing the whole world will hear your score in a few minutes,” says Kizer. “No matter how well you do, there’s always going to be discontent— unless it was a very easy fight with a clear-cut winner.”

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